Education in the Media
Bill requiring voter approval of charter schools could doom themJune 29, 2011
Charter schools have totally taken off, with desperate students in cities such as Newark and Camden lining up thousands deep on waiting lists. Instead of being trapped in a failing district school, they want to take a chance on a charter — an alternative public school that does things differently.
Some have shown big success, but school districts and teachers unions have never been comfortable with these upstarts in their midst. Much of the opposition has come from highly performing suburban districts. While the need for charters there is not as pressing, parents still deserve the same choice. And charters in wealthier districts are often just as popular: At Princeton Charter School, more than 300 students are on a waiting list.
The state Assembly is expected to vote on a bill today that would require voter approval in order to open any charter, and it’s easy to see the intent behind it: Why would districts that hold a monopoly want to invite competitors?
When a student leaves for a charter, however, he takes only a portion of the money earmarked for him, leaving the districts with higher per-student funding. Charters also get no state money for facilities.
Yes, it can be painful for a district until the number of students leaving reaches a critical mass and adjustments can be made. When you take only 40 kids out of a district school, you’re not firing teachers or reducing operational costs.
But the referendum would make a political campaign out of every new charter application. The state Department of Education is in charge of opening and closing charter schools, and we don’t vote on anything else the DOE does, such as the creation of magnet schools.
This bill would give parents or members of the politically entrenched teachers union who resent popular charter schools the ability to simply vote them down. That would take school choice away from parents in cities and in suburbs.
Instead, we should strengthen charter oversight. The superintendent and local school board should review every new charter application before it’s approved. If the charter is not needed in that district, the DOE shouldn’t approve it. And if a charter doesn’t ultimately meet enrollment, it must be shut down.
Requiring a referendum stifles choice and innovation — that can be a casualty when the majority rules. In any district, a minority of parents may decide they want a safer school, a language immersion program or a more rigorous curriculum. And that’s their right.